One of the toughest challenges I’ve had in the past few years has been mustering the discipline to focus on things for more than a few minutes. When it comes to TV shows or iPhone games, I feel like hours can go by easily, but when it comes to things like writing proposals or replying to emails, I’ve had a hard time engaging in these activities for more than a few minutes at a time. Oftentimes, I would distract myself by reading a quick news article or checking a score on ESPN. Sometimes, I would interrupt one productive moment with another, writing a line in a proposal and then switching over to answer a quick email. An entire day of going back and forth and I’m usually left exhausted with a bunch of little things completed, but all the larger tasks still left unfinished.
For a long time, I’ve tried to track my time by counting the time elapsed. For example, I would promise to write for an hour and count until an hour had surpassed, not really accounting for the instances I got up to get a cookie or refill my glass of bourbon. Counting up the minutes is usually a chore for me, hoping I can get engaged enough so that the time will speed by. If I get bored or frustrated, each minute can feel like an eternity, forcing me to procrastinate and find distractions. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a different method. I’ve gone from time elapsed to time remaining. Instead of working up to an hour, I count down from an hour, using the Timer functionality on my iPhone. For some activities, I’ll set a short amount of time to force myself to work fast. A great example: I’ve had to work on two employee performance reviews in the past week. These have usually taken me an hour each in the past. I decided to give myself 20 minutes per review. I found myself working really quickly to compile the notes, read them thoroughly, and write out the review sheets in a clear and effective manner. During the process, I didn’t check emails at all and the only text I read were related to the reviews. I would argue that these reviews turned out better than the ones that took much longer to produce because my mind was fully into their creation.
The time remaining method works very well when working on tasks that require careful thought and deliberation. I’ve used 20-minute increments to pump out Statement of Work documents, which require clearly outlined descriptions of our services. I’ve also used 10-minute increments to reply to batches of new business emails. I’ve used the method to force myself to write challenging HR-related emails and to tackle tasks that I previously dreaded for many weeks.
When trying to pinpoint what I like so much about the time remaining method, I think about how much I appreciate the Insanity workouts. Insanity is a series of workout videos that promises a tight body through strenuous stamina. Its core approach is called “max interval training” where you do a series of exercises for 3-4 intense minutes before taking a 30-second break and starting again. In the video, I really like how they have a countdown timer at the bottom of the screen so you are aware of where you are in the 3-4 minutes and how close you are to the overall finish (workouts typically last from 40 to 55 minutes). Likewise, when I set 10, 25, or 45-minute intervals for my various tasks, I give myself a kick in the ass to finish the task within the allotted time. This creates a sense of urgency which in turn forces me to fully engage in my activity and shuts off all the distractions. On a given day, if I’m able to partake in 4-6 of these sessions, I know that I’ll have accomplished quite a bit of work.
The desire to feel productive is one that I’ve harbored since childhood. I look back fondly to my high school and college years when I spent six to eight straight hours in front of a computer coding websites, editing films, and writing stories. These days, due to the nature of my work, I feel lucky if I can get thirty minutes of uninterrupted time during a workday. Sometimes the interruptions are self-inflicted, with years of email checking every 5 minutes having become as normal as breathing. I’m often frustrated by how little time I’ve put into learning something in-depth or how I hardly ever tinker with things anymore. What’s sad is that I feel like most of the “experiences” that I reference are from my much younger days, when I could get lost in Adobe Illustrator for 2-3 hours without worry. I’m hoping that techniques like my time remaining approach (and similar ones like the 25-minute Pomodoro Technique) will instill in me a habit of uninterrupted thinking and engagement, where one day, I can just sit down and do something for an entire hour without even once wondering who’s emailed me or if my company’s been mentioned in a Tweet. There’s endless treasures to be had if I can just direct my undivided attention to tasks one at a time.